By Christine Baik and Tracy McDannald
It’s almost time to pull out those festive costumes and speedos—even if the forecast says otherwise.
Special Olympics Southern California’s Big Bear Polar Plunge will take place Saturday, March 7 at Big Bear Lake to help raise funds for Special Olympics Inland Empire. Fundraisers, known as Plungers, often get creative as they walk, run or dance into the freezing cold water to help raise awareness for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
In recent years, it’s even been known to rain or snow on event day, but the energetic group of attendees brave through it with spirited enthusiasm.
WeAreSOSC.org caught up with some of the event’s dedicated Plungers, each with their own unique experiences, to figure out how to prepare for such a cold blast, why the event is important to them, and more.
Deputy Brendan Mahoney, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department
Stationed in Apple Valley, Deputy Mahoney is part of a fundraising team that also includes the local fire department. Thus, they’re named the Fruit Town Heroes.
The 2020 Big Bear Polar Plunge will be his sixth year of participation.
Like anything that may come with a hint of hesitation due to fear of the unknown, the only way to conquer the plunge is to jump in.
“I’d say the best prep is a mental one. You just have to get it in your head it’s going to be cold, but you’ll be alright and it’s all for a great cause,” Deputy Mahoney said.
“With that being said, that water is COOOOLD!”
While each year has made for memorable moments, it was Deputy Mahoney’s first year participating that stands out a little more. The image of a law enforcement officer typically comes with a badge and a highly respected uniform.
The event was a chance to shed those layers for a few hours and show off his Sheriff’s speedo that “got fantastic reactions,” he said.
“What stands out to me is the energy and excitement of the event that builds up to everyone jumping in,” he added.
Prior to being part of the Plunge, Deputy Mahoney hadn’t really been part of events that raised awareness and support for causes. He was impressed to see “such a unique event” that had multiple ways to get involved, “with endless ways to donate your support.”
For instance, Plungers can register individually or as a team. For those who wish to stay dry but still donate and take part in the fun, the appropriately named “too chicken to plunge” option is available. Then, for those unable to attend, donors can choose to support a specific Plunger, team or Special Olympics Southern California, in general.
The event also lends the opportunity to interact with the people who will be impacted directly by the funds raised—the local Special Olympics athletes.
“It shows a whole new level of perseverance, dedication and heart by people who strive to achieve great things in their sport and have fun,” Deputy Mahoney said of the impressions left by the athletes he’s met.
Valerie Whyte-Bianchi, captain of The Screaming Vikings fundraising team
Started in 2015 by original members Bryan Bianchi and Greg Hansen, The Screaming Vikings are preparing for their sixth plunge this year.
This group of friends named their team, The Screaming Vikings, after a team member’s cabin in Big Bear Lake. “We’re a bit of a Clan,” team captain Valerie Whyte-Bianchi said. “The costumes and the Viking ship, seemed natural!”
Every year, Valerie looks forward to the ever-returning crowd, both participants and visitors. The Screaming Vikings are greeted by many at the event, and often asked for pictures. The energy the team brings to the event is exciting and memorable, and Valerie said she hopes it helps inspire people to support SOSC.
Not only is the crowd turnout a dedicated community, The Screaming Vikings are a very dedicated team, as they have not missed a plunge since they started. All of their team is on board for the 2020 plunge. The team brings the same level of intense energy every year, rain or snow.
“What makes this event special is the impression the athletes make on the participants and visitors to Big Bear Lake,” she said.
Valerie has heard from the Big Bear event staff that The Screaming Vikings are the only team that has no connection to an organization, corporate sponsorship, or family team personally connected to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“We are merely a group of friends and family that do this for the cause. I won’t say that we don’t have a blast doing it!” she added.
Though Valerie admits they are not the single-highest fundraising team, she believes the group helps bring a level of visibility to the event and cause. The Screaming Vikings have been on the Polar Plunge’s Top Teams fundraiser list every year since they started.
The day of the Polar Plunge, you will find the team having a Team Screaming Vikings’ breakfast, which prepares them for extremely cold blast that awaits them.
“The Clan doesn’t hesitate when it’s time to line up or when they reach the water,” Valerie said.
Lae Freeman is 47 years old and from Compton, Calif.
He first heard about the event through a detective at the time while working CPS in the mountain areas near Big Bear. Encouraged to participate, Lae made the fateful decision to become a great contributor to the Special Olympics community.
To Lae, the atmosphere is fun, and it’s all for a good cause. He also feels a sense of accomplishment in raising the money for Special Olympics.
The first year he participated, Lae remembers as he and his teammate went to high-five athletes and their families, people thanked him for his participation and contribution. It touched him to see their appreciation.
He even feels a sense of obligation to do the Polar Plunge simply because he has the opportunity to raise money.
“How would I feel about not doing that, if it doesn’t take much effort from me?” he said.
Lae likes to challenge himself when he collects donations as well. He has abstained from pleasures such as whiskey or eating meat and has done wild things such as getting his legs waxed, all for the sake of raising donations for Special Olympics.
Funnily enough, when it comes to the actual icy bath, “I don’t even come prepared mentally,” Lae said, and he just goes for it. The hard part, for him, is not getting in the water, but coming out of it and feeling the sting of the air.
Prior to his first Polar Plunge, Lae had never attended a Special Olympics event, but now he is active in the community. He recalled a time that he presented medals at a bowling tournament and recognized the services that Special Olympics provided for people with intellectual disabilities of all levels.
Just seeing that these things exist was very eye opening to him.
“You don’t know the impact that even the money you raise has until you see it firsthand and realize these are families. These are people,” Lae said.